Skin A Cat, Vault Festival

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Without question, my best new writing discovery of 2015 was young writer Isley Lynn’s play Tether at Edinburgh Fringe. This surprising, diverse two-hander also made it into the top five of my Top 10 Shows of 2015 so I was excited to receive an invitation to her autobiographical play Skin A Cat at Vault Festival. Having been so blown away by Tether, I worried I would find her other work underwhelming, but Skin A Cat is driven by the same sort of quick-witted, emotionally honest characters on a path of discovery that Tether boasts. Skin A Cat’s not about sport, though. It’s a tale of a stubborn vagina and an epic journey of self-acceptance in a world obsessed with sex. Phenomenal performances and humour tell Alana’s struggle with vaginismus and vaginal penetration with refreshingly frank, honest writing.

Theatre (and Western culture) doesn’t shy away from heteronormative sex, but a main character that hates it due to a psychosexual disorder is most rare indeed. Beginning with her first period on holiday at age nine, we see Alana (Lydia Larson) navigate teenage sexual exploits, several boyfriends, university and her twenties as a heterosexual young woman who finds vaginal penetration excruciating to the point of impossible. Try as she might, it doesn’t happen and the older she gets, the more burdensome and upsetting her virginity becomes. Alana tells her story directly to the audience with support by the excellent Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia, who play everyone else she encounters along the way, sometimes on mics and sometimes in conventional dialogue scenes, seamlessly switching between the two styles. Larson’s fantastic, perky Alana is genuine, funny and grows up before the audience’s eyes; that and Lynn’s unfettered dialogue cause us to feel like we know her inside and out (#sorrynotsorry) at the end of the 90 minutes.

Lynn’s gift for dialogue and detailed characters within a cleverly framed style shines here, and is generally well supported by director Blythe Stewart. Despite the serious subject matter and the control vaginismus has over Alana’s life, Lynn and Stewart use humour delightfully and liberally in both the writing and staging. Sex, attempted sex and orgasms hilariously abound, along with poignancy, tenderness and dogged desperation. It’s a beautiful balance.

Holly Pigott’s set solely consists of a bed; the pressure of its associated activities dominates Alana’s life. Some of the costume choices puzzle, though. The dungarees that Clark and Ahluwalia wear are androgynous and childlike, and rather old fashioned. Larson wears layers of undergarments that creates a simultaneously sexy and exposing, and completely unsexy and concealing effect – a great manifestation of Alana’s inner conflict.

Skin A Cat evokes belly laughs and empathy, nostalgia and wonder. Though it raises awareness of a psychosexual condition, Lynn manages to not make this an “awareness” play. Instead, it’s a story about growing up, loving yourself and making friends with your body’s quirks. Excellent writing and committed performances in Skin A Cat prove Isley Lynn and the cast are ones to watch.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Kite, Soho Theatre

Grief doesn’t need words to communicate. Music and movement are much better mediums for the relentless, gut ripping echo that is losing someone you love. The Wrong Crowd’s latest work Kite depicts the simple, family friendly tale of Girl’s move to her grandmother’s home in the city after her mother’s death. Puppetry, movement and music completely replace words in this visual theatre piece that quietly charms in its simplicity.

We first meet Girl (Charlotte Croft) poring through boxes labelled, “mum’s stuff” and reliving her memories through perfume, clothes and a photograph. In this sadly beautiful sequence, she rebuilds her mother out of these items, but her grandmother (Liz Crowther) eventually interrupts. Girl is often alone but for the constant wind the audience hears, personified by two strangers in grey trench coats, Linden Walcott-Burton and Nicola Blackwell. They are an ominous presence initially but once their purpose is made clear, they lose their threatening presence. These two also functionally serve as stagehands, moving and shifting the set and props in tightly choreographed neutrality that’s entrancing to watch. They never judge, just eternally observe and manipulate the world around them. 

Suddenly, a small, yellow kite interrupts Girl’s melancholy and refusal to eat at her grandmother’s house, and everything changes. The colour is a bright splash across the dark set and its constant movement takes on its own personality, like the wind that propels it. The quiet, calm atmosphere gains a refreshing energy as Girl bonds with the kite mid-air. Puppetry is introduced and adds additional charm, but could be incorporated more and earlier in the piece.

Though movement and sound are the primary features conveying mood and tone here, the choreography by Eddie Kay is simple. Polished, but simple – and it works. Dealing with grief is a repetitive process, making everyday routine even more meaningless. Girl has little expression until she finds the kite, drawing even more attention to the movement. The audience can see Grandmother’s exasperation in unembellished, repeated gestures. Crowther counters her with a warm, expressive face that betrays her love for girl; rare moments where she can focus on her own grief are some of the saddest in the show.

The design, like the choreography, is simple and effective. Director Rachel Canning takes charge of this element, integrating it well with the action. Domestic items seem mundane but are transformed into a skyline when Girl flies high above the city. A similar transformation happens to Grandmother’s umbrella with the addition of some rope lighting. 

The piece as a whole doesn’t have a huge “wow” factor, but that’s ok. It has a gentle warmth, plenty of pathos and feels like a soothing bath after a long day. Its quietness suits the very young and those prone to sensory overload, but the story of a young girl’s journey through grief resonates with all ages.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

You Tweet My Face Space, Theatre N16

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David and Charlotte’s ten-year relationship is on the rocks. He’s struggling with an addiction that’s pushing her out of his busy life, but David’s social media and internet habits aren’t allowing him to give Charlotte the attention she deserves. When an indiscretion on a night out is immediately published and Charlotte leaves him, David vows to quit cold turkey. It’s not so easy though. As the personified apps crash his peace and quiet, this romcom takes a surreal, satirical turn. With bitingly funny moments, good comic timing and some good performances, this surprising one-act is a great giggle for those of us enslaved by technology.

Tom Hartwell is the bookish, quiet David who’s frustration becomes real and relatable. He’s wonderfully foiled by characters such as Hotmail (suave, aloof Hadley Smith), self-obsessed Instagram (girl next door Ellie Goffe with a heart of gold) and Facebook (subtly vicious Evan Rees). Tinder (Kate Okello), Farmville (the wonderfully dour Katie Dalzell) and a couple of others join in to try to persuade David to stay in the internet realm, and some glorious clashes ensue with plenty of digital pop culture in-jokes. Pacing is excellent, as is the energy and ensemble work of the cast.

Hartwell is also the playwright; he has good intuition for the relationship story arc that frames and justifies the chaos, though the moral is a rather obvious one and not particularly profound. His dialogue is punchy and fun, regularly inducing laughs. (It would be interesting to see what his serious material is like.) Director Anne Stoffels has her hands full with a large cast in a small space, but usually manages to keep the action moving without messiness.

For a social media comedy, You Tweet My Face Space is well crafted and even though some of the performances are weaker than others, it reminds us to take a break from our online worlds and interact with people face-to-face more often. It’s a fun, frivolous piece with some excellent moments and a bit of post-holiday season fun.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

in/out (a feeling), Hope Theatre

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Sometimes, simplicity in narrative structure is more effective than twists, heaps of characters and subplots. Storytelling has been a powerful medium for time immemorial. in/out (a feeling) starkly depicts young, Eastern European woman Blue working in a London brothel after promised a cleaning job. Her client Ollie is a coked-up, suburban lad out for his mate’s stag do, but their encounter changes both their lives, at least for a little while. This two-hander is a brutal depiction of sex trafficking and its uncomfortable nearness to us all, but unblinkingly focuses on the delicate humanity of these two characters through interweaving, storytelling monologues. Excellent performances and Andrew Maddock’s sophisticated wordplay and use of rhythm both captivates and horrifies in this outstanding production with few, if any, faults.

Nicholas Clarke and Alex Reynolds are Ollie and Blue. Though rarely addressing each other directly, their chemistry is still tangible. Clarke’s character has a more interesting journey, from lad’s lad to articulate romantic to devoted boyfriend; Reynolds’ is subtler but more devastating. Both have fearless, vulnerable presences and expressive eyes that pierce the audience to the core during extended sequences of direct address. This is a small, intimate play in a similarly sized venue, but these performers fill the room with intensity and then some. The audience feels like they really know them by the end: a remarkable feat.

Director Niall Phillips and lighting designer Çağla Temizsoy put the stage/bed in the round with harsh blue and red lighting. The set design, presumably by Phillips, is similarly harsh and animalistic: white paint slashes the black walls, strips of red fabric hang from the ceiling like intestines. It’s a nightmare to us, but it’s Blue’s reality. Small buckets, like the kind children play with at the beach, dangle at head height. They aren’t filled with sand, though. It’s Ollie’s perpetual supply of cocaine that he lovingly shares with Blue and frantically sniffs during descriptions of his all-night binges. By the end of this 70-minute play, there’s white powder everywhere.

Along with the performances, Maddock’s language is the star of the play. Evocative rhyme hints at spoken word at times, at others his prose dances with colours, imagery and Blue’s memories of a happier life. We meet several other characters through their storytelling: Blue’s pimp, Ollie’s friend Connell, and others. The double meaning and repetition of “in, out” innocuously describes breathing, then the other bodily function that dictates the rhythms of Blue’s existence. Maddock’s ability to wow the audience with his facility of word choice, sentence structure, rhyme and repetition easily tips into the terror that these characters experiences; this is proof of an extraordinary gift with words and evocative storytelling.

Though building awareness of the closeness of human trafficking is clearly the primary purpose of this piece (Do you actually know your neighbours’ isn’t a brothel? I don’t.), in/out (a feeling) could be about anything at all and the language would still have it’s power. This is a production that needs to be seen, but it feels it would lose its intensity in a larger venue. A good portion of the actors’ power hinges on eye contact, which is easily lost in a bigger space. But in/out (a feeling) needs to be seen by more people – by everyone. And it’s a stunning piece of theatre as well as a vital one.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Shakespeare as You (Might) Like It, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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Four hundred years ago this April, Shakespeare died. A bunch of academics decided to take advantage of this bizarre anniversary and launched Shakespeare 400. It’s a great excuse for a nationwide Shakespeare celebration, but few of the involved events appear to acknowledge that the celebration is of his death and that he most definitely would write no more. Shook Up Shakespeare hasn’t let this fact bypass them, though. Their 45-minute Shakespearian cabaret mash up, Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It, is a quad centenary wake celebrating some of the Bard’s best female roles and the chaotic spirit of Elizabethan and Jacobean performance conventions.

Performer/creators Roseanna Morris and Helen Watkinson energetically and easily flip from Shakespeare’s verse to contemporary audience banter. Their show doesn’t have a plot, but involves party games, cakes, wine, singing and audience interaction as well as some cracking excerpts. In the intimate Rosemary Branch Theatre, it’s hard to hide but after the initial refreshments, party bags and taking a register, it feels more like a group of friends out for a laugh so people willingly volunteer. There’s a hint of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) but with less structure, though it doesn’t feel like it needs it at such a short length.

Morris and Watkinson, as well as being friendly, charismatic and unintimidating, are excellent performers. They perform three scenes and at a push, the Desdemona/Emilia scene is the best but the other two are still fantastically endowed with a seemingly-easy commitment. Though not the best of singers, they confidently carry the Willow song. They switch their tone on a pin, which is truly lovely to watch.

Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It is their debut show as a company and as fun as it is, it could use some developing. With more material it will probably need more shaping and a more clearly outlined purpose/message, but Morris and Watkinson are natural talents with clear passion for sharing Shakespeare’s work with joy rather than quiet reverence.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Macbeth, Young Vic Theatre

Though drastic re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays can show the contemporary relevance of his workgroups the use of a clear, justifiable concept, randomly slapping on cool ideas has the opposite effect. Alienating and confusing, the audience can go away with no more understanding of the story than they came in with, and the director’s decisions look masturbatory and self-indulgent. If a new perspective or insight isn’t provided on a play that the audience is likely to already know or have seen, then there is absolutely no point to adding a concept at all. Such is the case with Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s Macbeth. With a text cut to ribbons, lengthy contemporary dance sequences inserted, generically quirky witches and inexplicable doubling, this production is a fine example of how contemporary Shakespeare concepts for the sake of edginess fails to communicate anything to the audience.

An optical illusion of a set by Lizzie Clachan and Neil Austin’s lighting ensures every moment could make a stunning photograph with stark shadows and forced perspective. This isn’t an art exhibition, though. The cold, industrial feel supports the mood of the play but lacks the sumptuousness that the Macbeths kill for. The rarely changing set doesn’t delineate space or place well, merging this world with the next. In some scenes this works, but it’s hard to follow where the characters are, particularly with the liberal cuts to the text. A home or a Heath? Scotland or England? Bedroom or banquet? It’s easy to lose track, even knowing the play well.

The witches, wearing beige dance wear, twitch and spasm around the space, sometimes with other characters joining in to create a repetitive, robotic movement machine. Why? I genuinely don’t know. There’s a hint of a lack of self-control but the repetition counters that effect. They also double for the child characters, which causes them to lose their power and inhuman-ness. Their movement sequences are entirely too long and lack any support for the narrative, though they are distinct from the other characters.

Fortunately, some of the performances are quite good. John Heffernan as Macbeth is a flawed man we see unravel, though this process is forced due to the cuts in the first half of the play. Anna Maxwell Martin on the other hand is rushed and deadpan, completely disregarding the verse and therefore flattening it. Prasanna Puwanarajah is a good Banquo, though the choice to have his ghost narrate the “out, damn spot” monologue was completely ineffective and nonsensical. Despite a disempowerment of the smaller roles due to the textual edits, the rest of the cast perform with energy and commitment.

There is a litany of further poor choices that show a value of style over substance in this production, and despite the directors’ need for weirdness, the whole thing comes across as generic and pointless. The stylised, lengthy movement sequences make no comment on the world of the play or its inhabitants, and with so much of the text removed, this Macbeth is very much “a tale…full of sound a fury, signifying nothing”.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Big Brother Blitzkrieg, King’s Head Theatre

Lots of things seem like a great idea at uni. Some of them are genuinely good ideas. A great deal more aren’t. Writing a play about Hitler in the Big Brother House is one of the latter. In 2014, Newcastle University students Hew Rous Eyre and Max Elton founded Bitter Pill Theatre to produce their debut play, Big Brother Blitzkrieg, at Edinburgh Fringe that year. With a couple of other shows now under their belt, they bring their popular first production to London. Meant to somehow satirise Big Brother and Hitler, this stereotype-driven piece doesn’t follow any sort of consistent narrative logic and doesn’t manage to rise to satirical humour. The performances are very good despite the character limitations, but the script comes across as a drunks, nonsensical idea that would have been better off forgotten.

When Hitler fails to kill himself after his final rejection from art school, he wakes up in the garden of the Big Brother House during its final season. True to life, no one watches the programme anymore and the contestants are just in it for the money. Bafflingly, none of them no who Hitler is, even the educated, middle class housemates. Clearly this is a world where WWII never happened, but I’m not sure what point that’s meant to make. Similarly, the plot follows what I imagine to be standard Big Brother events: evictions, competitions, surprises and character clashes that are largely unfunny and offer no new perspective on the show or reality TV format. Though the story defies the laws of Physics through the use of time travel, this element is wholly neglected.

The cast are very good, or at least at playing their respective stereotypes. Stephen Chance is an expressive, quick-witted Hitler with no idea of how to deal with charming, bouncy Essex lad M-Cat (Kit Loyd) and ageing queen Felix (Neil Summerville). He finds kinship in corporate PR and Tory Lucy (Jenny Johns), a delightfully despicable Katie Hopkins homage. The house is completed with femi-gendered Charlie (Hannah Douglas) who has some cracking exchanges with Lucy, and the bland as plain toast housewife Rachel (Tracey Ann Wood), who Hitler immediately distrusts. The combinations invites inevitable situation comedy but again, it’s not sophisticated enough to count as satire, or have any sort of message at all. A shame, as the actors all seem to have great potential but are stuck playing two dimensions.

The show would suit a much smaller format, like a reoccurring sketch as part of a comedy show limiting each slot to ten minutes. About half an hour in, Big Brother Blitzkrieg already feels too long. There were a few good lines, but in 75 minutes, a few isn’t enough to save this play even with the hardworking cast. Despite the commendation these young practitioners deserve for setting up a company whilst still studying and keeping it going for nearly two years, part of artistic development is knowing when to let an idea go. This is a production that needs to retire in favour of more advanced, relevant work.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

The Long Road South, King’s Head Theatre

The Civil Rights movement in America was time of turbulence and violence but both black and white activists retaliated with their passion for equality. The issue divided individual families across generations, recreating the conflict on a microcosmic level. Paul Minx’s The Long Road South recreates this excruciating tension through close examination of the dysfunctional Price family in suburban Indiana.

Stay at home Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs)is mother  to teenager Ivy (Lydea Perkins) and married to supermarket manager Jake (Michael Brandon). They are the only family in their neighbourhood able to afford “help”, black couple Grace (Krissi Bohn) and Andre (Cornelius Macarthy). On the surface, these characters are aspirational and progressive. That American Dream veneer doesn’t hold up for long, though. The characters’ gangrenous innards seep out, creating a kitchen sink drama with excellent moments, dramatic themes  and characterisation akin to Miller and Williams, but lacks the linguistic sophistication of these revolutionary writers and a few too many twists and turns for a one-act play.

The cast is generally strong, with Brandon outshining the rest when he eventually appears in Willy Loman-esque glory. Perkins has a grating vocal quality that, though appropriate to the lying, manipulative character, was nails on a blackboard after a few scenes. Bohn and Macarthy are good foils to each other with a lovely chemistry and sharp edges that sporadically pop out, adding to the dissonance. Stubbs is the tragic heroine, trapped in her house by alcoholism and the memory of an institutionalised child. This lot are a close-knit ensemble, an extended family with all the complexity of a real life one. Unfortunately, the accents spanned the country rather than uniting this family in a common place.

Director Sarah Berger skilfully uses the irregular playing space and space to enhance tension. Rarely touching or even close to each other, this shows the power of religious belief in these characters constantly aware of Satan’s temptations. Adrian Linford’s sunny back garden with its perfectly mowed grass and pastel BBQ juxtaposes the family’s chaos. Minx has an instinct for conflict, but the production’s subtlety comes from the performances rather than the dialogue. There’s no overt moralising or thickly laid Americanisms, just the characters’ genuine need to do what they think is right.

The Long Road South is a quite the good script by a writer with plenty of promise and a great cast. It’s a good reminder of a crucial period of American history, and that monumental change can wreak havoc on the closest of family units. The cast and the characters’ individual stories are certainly the best features here, but the other production elements aren’t far behind.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Amaluna, Cirque du Soleil at Royal Albert Hall

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Nearly twenty years ago, I went to my first Cirque du Soleil show in New York. A young teenager and already obsessed with theatre and performance, I was blown away by the colour and spectacle, having never seen anything like it before in the fourteen years that I’d been on this earth. I have no concrete memories of the show, just flashes of light and colour, and feeling impressed. I looked forward to see if Amaluna, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, would live up to my juvenile memories.

It took a while to find out. First, I had to meet my critic friend, who had invited me as her guest, at door 6 at 7:30. I approached Royal Albert Hall from the side closest to Exhibition Road and found myself at door 3. Not being familiar with the venue, I picked a direction and soon found I was going the wrong way. Considering it’s a circular building and I was early, I carried on and found myself at door 6.

WHAT SHEER HELL IS THIS? At door 6 was Cirque’s version of a red carpet (it was blue), a queue of luxury cars out of which vaguely familiar people emerged in black tie and evening gowns, bright lights and hordes of shouting paparazzi. A few cold looking performers in costume posed for photographs, film crews conducted interviews and vicious looking security guards hovered, ready to move on anyone that looked like they didn’t belong.

I’ve been to a lot of press nights, but this was incomparable. More like a film premiere or awards ceremony, Cirque at some point took the circus outside the venue and into the media and celebrity world. When did this happen? Or more importantly, why? Does Cirque really need the publicity so badly that they pander to the vapid world of Big Brother contestants and paparazzi? And how was I supposed to find my friend in this mess?

Giving wide berth to this bright and shiny, “OK Magazine Live!” shitshow, I carried on to the other side of the large foyer that the blue carpet led to. Fortunately door 6 was duplicated opposite and the nice usher on the door let me wait in the warm. I still managed to be early. The performers across the foyer still looked cold; it dawned on me that they had to be onstage doing acrobatics in less than an hour and that they were either understudies/doubles or Cirque is more interested in photo ops with celebs than the wellbeing of their performers. I desperately hope it’s the former.

Anyway, the show itself. Nearly. We had great seats in a box allocated for press but I didn’t realise at first just how good they were. Or rather, how expensive, until critic friend informed me what they were retailing for. My initial reaction was an inner explosion of flabbergast, “people around us paid HOW MUCH for this show?” Then I realised: press get their tickets free, as does the wafting, gormless army of famous people, so how much is Cirque actually making out of this press gala? Especially considering the post-show reception (we declined our invitation to attend) and the swathes of empty seats in the upper galleries. These are the cheapest seats, but on a press night, why are they empty? Were they marked up so much that they weren’t bought? Are people not interested in Cirque anymore? (In which case, they desperately need the media attention.) Or, did Cirque keep them vacant so plebs didn’t gawp over their famous fellow audience members? Regardless of the reason, none of the prospective answers are positive.

NOW for the show. Really.

I love when theatre and performance makers mess about with Shakespeare. It can prove his work is still relevant and opens the possibility of a new perspective or insight. The programme states that this is a female-driven show: Prospero is now Prospera, and Amaluna is Miranda’s empowering coming-of-age story. The band is entirely female, as is most of the cast. A feminist adaptation of a Shakespeare play for circus? It should be brilliant, and exceed my youthful memories of my last Cirque show.

It’s not brilliant. Sure, it’s bright, colourful and a consistent sensory overload. The skill-set of the performers is top notch. There are acrobats, aerialists of all kinds, clowns, Chinese pole performers, and juggling. It’s technically impressive. It’s easy to get swept away by the spectacle of the whole thing.

There’s little substance, though. They story is a vague framework for the circus acts and spectacle. Most importantly, the supposedly empowering female narrative is anything but. Prospera throws a party for her daughter Miranda, who then bathes in the light of the aerial hoop performing Moon Goddess who bestows her with a gift of a glass sphere. It’s an obvious metaphor for Miranda’s  womanhood/menstrual cycle, and a cringy one at that which doesn’t contribute anything to The Tempest aspect story. Miranda also meets a prince who has washed up on their island in a storm. Called Romeo rather than Ferdinand (dear god, why???), Miranda immediately falls in love with his sculpted, often shirtless body. Her best friend Cali, a half-lizard-half-man creature, is jealous of the man who’s taking away Miranda’s attention from him. The two male characters compete for young Miranda’s attention and the pretty, shipwrecked Romeo was always going to win, gifted with a wedding and all. It was like an old school Disney film. Empowering to women? No, no, NO. The narrative presented was about as disempowering as you can get, particularly when you factor in the creepy plot points of an unseen Romeo watching Miranda bathe and hand balance in white shorts that become nearly transparent from the water (You can see EVERYTHING. I’m pretty sure I could see up into her stomach during the splits.), and Cali abducting her into the heavens to keep her to himself. Also consider for a moment that in Shakespeare’s version, Caliban raped Miranda and is enslaved by her father as consequence. Plus, if this is Miranda’s coming-of-age celebration, she’s how old? Sixteen AT THE OLDEST. And she get married at the end of a story that spans no more than a couple of days? This is supposed to be a piece of performance that empowers women.

There’s also plenty of creeping elsewhere in the show. The two clowns, one a nanny to the young Miranda and one a washed up sea captain. Mainha and Papulya are overtly sexual, and as cringy as the Moon Goddess. There’s classical Commedia influence in the pratfalls and lazzi-like sketches full of groping, arse kissing and manipulation. I get that circus performers have to wear tight clothes for their work, but the men are often topless for no apparent reason and there’s more female flesh on display than needs be.

Ignoring the narrative and theme, the individual acts and the show of it is celebratory, fun and a showcase of skill. However, Cirque as a vast, commercial institution raises some concerns, and the perception of female empowerment and celebration by their creative and marketing team when the reality is the opposite is not only highly disturbing, but a sign of endemic patriarchal complacency about what is an acceptable lens to view womanhood through in the performing arts.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

King & Country, Barbican Centre/RSC

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Shakespeare’s history plays are some of his best. Epic tales with tragedy and comedy, love and war, politics and history are brought to life on stage, with the storyline of some characters spanning years and multiple plays. The RSC and Barbican have, over the last few years, presented the first four as separate productions but to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year, unite them as a single ticket. King and Country is Richard II, Henry IV part i, Henry IV part ii and Henry V is a marathon package deal of roughly twelve hours of theatre (plus intervals) spread over several days. A large ensemble cast play all roles across the four plays, with the same actors satisfyingly playing the same parts that stretch across multiple productions. Set and design also carry through; this quartet is slick, engaging and brings together original and contemporary practice.

Big names in the cast are an initial draw and live up to their hype (David Tennant, Antony Sher, Julian Glover), but the thirty-strong ensemble are just as good, if not better. Sam Marks as Aumerle, Poins and the Constable of France is excellent, particularly as Prince Hal’s laddish sidekick with a magnetic energy that bounces around the stage and fills the 1,156-seat theatre with youthful vigour. Matthew Needham comically interprets Hotspur; random, extreme outbursts get laughs, making the character’s tragic flaw the reason for his defeat. He also plays Mowbray and Shadow, the latter being a minor role but played with such commendable contrast that he is unrecognisable. Jennifer Kirby is a feisty Lady Percy and a naughty and nice Katherine, endowing both small roles with heaps of personality. The best comedic performances include Oliver Ford Davies as Shallow (also a fantastic Duke of York and Chorus), Emma King as Doll Tearsheet, Sarah Parks as Mistress Quickly and Joshua Gardner as Fluellen.

Tennant is just as exquisite as Richard II as two years ago, and Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke/Henry IV is endowed with pathos, guilt and an extraordinary character journey. Alex Hassell is delightful as the devil-may-care Prince Hall, but his quieter, matter of fact Henry V is sensitive but less dynamic. He aims for intimacy rather than bombast and arrogance, a unique interpretation but one that is not overly effective due to a lack of power, particularly in his famous speeches. Antony Sher nails Falstaff’s characterisation, but his even, rhythmic delivery lacks variation and harks back to the old fashioned declamatory RSC stage speech – hugely disappointing.

Stephen Bromson Lewis’ set is the same as it was for Richard II’s performance two years ago and has little variation over the four productions. Paired with Tim Mitchell’s lighting, the audience sees austere courts, earthy battlefields and debauched public houses that don’t interfere with the action. The acrylic floor of under lit ploughed furrows is the surprise of the event, not viewable from the stalls closest to the stage but adds a striking dynamic and atmosphere from the gods: a delight for us peasants with the cheapest seats. Costumes (presumably also by Lewis) hint at a time period, but have a contemporary, minimalist touch that please the eye but not dominating.

There are some odd directorial choices by Gregory Doran in these otherwise stunning productions. Rumour (Antony Byrne) is in contemporary dress, accompanied by a projected digital cascade of hashtags and “rumour”. The Chorus (Oliver Ford Davies) is similarly dressed, which makes sense with the text. The token technology reference? Much less so. These are jarring in their modernity, unneeded and contribute nothing to the meaning and aesthetic of the plays. He misses an opportunity to put Henry V on the elevated walkway heavily used in Richard II; instead he lowers him to a wooden cart and diminishes the gravity of the St. Crispan’s Day speech.

It was an utter joy to see Doran incorporate audience interaction; even though there weren’t many of these moments. They unite the audience and actors in a love for Shakespeare’s work, bringing everyone together in a celebration of living, breathing theatre rather than maintaining a distant reverence for it. Henry V’s adorable insecurity in the presence of French princess Katherine leads to asking the audience for advice, and Hassell’s corpsing during a pub scene as Hal (when an audience member loudly blew his nose and another actor acknowledged it within the action) was a delight. His easy confidence with this style of performance clearly stems from his early work with The Factory and The Globe; Doran should have exploited this more, particularly during the character’s youthful exploits. The audience could have easily been his army or his mates down the pub more often.

Though RSC productions have often missed the mark in the past, these four are almost as on it as they can get. They do not force a modern concept that only tenuously relates to the themes in the script, but they are not stuck in a stilted, stuffy style of yore. Doran’s productions are unified, alive and vibrant with stellar design and performances. Here’s hoping they see life in the UK beyond this Barbican run and their international tour this spring.

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